612 million people in the U.S. are infected with head lice each year.
Nobody wants head lice, and outbreaks can menace schools. But pesticides in most head lice treatments have been linked to neurological and other health problems, especially in children.
Head lice, or Pediculus humanus capitis, cause an estimated 6 to 12 million infestations per year in the U.S., most commonly affecting children 3 to 11 years of age. Despite common perceptions, head lice crawl, and cannot hop or fly. For this reason, transmission occurs most often by human head-to-head contact, and much less commonly by the sharing of personal items such as hats, coats, combs, or towels. Because head lice feed on human blood, they cannot live on pets and are only viable 1-2 days on surfaces other than the human head.
Head lice affect all socio-economic groups. Infestations spread regardless of the cleanliness of a home or school, or of personal hygiene. The most common symptoms are itching, but those affected are commonly asymptomatic as well. Head lice are most commonly found close to the scalp, usually behind the ears and near the nape of the neck. Despite perceptions otherwise, infestations are not a public health hazard, as they are not responsible for spreading any disease. Diagnosis occurs most often by the school nurse, who routinely conducts lice screenings and recommends treatment, which is most commonly carried out by a parent or guardian. In most cases, only when a first treatment is unsuccessful would a pediatrician's visit be sought.
The most common treatments are pesticide-based, over-the-counter remedies of permethrin (1%), or pyrethrin-based products. Approved prescription-only options are permethrin (5%), malathion (0.5%), or lindane (1%). Non-pesticide-based "home" remedies include mayonnaise, olive oil, Cetaphil lotion and essential oil blends.
Pesticide-based treatments are coming under increasing scrutiny, as superbugs and pesticide resistance grows. Repeat treatments of traditional pesticide-based products, especially on immune-compromised children has been anecdotally linked to A.L.L. (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) and even death. With the decreasing efficacy of traditional treatments on the rise, there is increasing need for effective and safe pesticide-free treatments.
Look to the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology for additional information about nontoxic head lice treatments. For more tips, sign up for the center's Greening Your Life newsletter.